We need a strong World Health Organization more than ever. The U.S. exit will drastically weaken it.

In 1948, health leaders established the World Health Organization (WHO) out of a new spirit of international cooperation. A world war had just ended and the United Nations had been born.  These leaders felt a moral responsibility to help people who were falling sick and dying from preventable causes. The idea of WHO was grounded in principles of solidarity and international collaboration, in the realization that only by working together can we solve complex issues that cause immense suffering and kill millions of people every year.

Global health organizations like MSH were also built on that premise: We have the means to take action, and a duty to do so. This immense undertaking was a success. The WHO coordinated campaigns that eradicated smallpox, brought us the Ebola vaccine, made significant gains against polio, HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, and improved the health and livelihoods of millions of people worldwide. Today we face the greatest pandemic threat in a century.

Our continued action will help us prevail over COVID-19, noncommunicable diseases, and other dire threats to our health. But the key to our success is unity, and unity requires leadership.

In many cases and countries, the WHO is that leader. Countries with scarce resources trust WHO to provide credible advice and guidance, and view it as an extension of their own health ministry. We look to the WHO for data, research, and guidance on many of our projects; this provides a common ground from which we can ally ourselves with local partners, other NGOs and private entities. The WHO leads groundbreaking research and medical advances.

These historic gains are thanks to humanity’s ingenuity and best instincts. They are now under threat. The United States played an important role in creating and developing and funding the WHO. A U.S. withdrawal could set back decades of work.

One clear setback is the reversal of hard-won health progress. For example, efforts to eradicate polio over the last two decades have reduced global cases by 99.9%, but loss of U.S. funding could potentially allow annual global polio cases to jump from a few hundred to 200,000 within a decade. This work has progressed with global leadership from Rotary Clubs in the U.S. and worldwide, partnering with WHO.

The U.S. exit will erode the U.S.’s ability to shape and lead policy. Though the U.S. may attempt to remain a global health leader by rerouting funding directly to countries, or through global public-private partnerships, it will have far less ability to shape rules such as the International Health Regulations, norms such as the WHO Priority Bacterial Pathogen List, and programs.

 

It will lead to duplicative and expensive efforts. The WHO is the global coordinator for long standing and successful health programs, and is the central clearinghouse for information that guides governments, institutions, and health facilities. For example, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the U.S.’s signature achievement in responding to HIV/AIDS, has relied on WHO to deliver health messages, ensure quality medications, and set health workforce standards. To recreate these systems from scratch will be enormously onerous and expensive.

It will slow pandemic recovery. Withdrawing from the WHO will inevitably cost lives. It will hamper or cut access to critical health program information like key scientific data, health intelligence, and insights globally to advance research on HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, neglected tropical diseases, emerging infectious disease, and antimicrobial resistance. It will hurt the U.S. response to the current pandemic, and slow the U.S.’s ability to return to optimum health and productivity.

The global health community still operates under our core values of duty and compassion. We are poised to take advantage of improved communication and technology to end this pandemic and continue to save and improve lives. As WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has said, the agency must reform to improve its response to crises.

Yet more than ever, we need strong leadership and a common framework for action. MSH will continue to advocate for U.S. engagement with the WHO. As an organization headquartered in the United States with offices in dozens of countries and 50 years of experience, we know that we are all stronger when we work together and share what we learn to close the gap between knowledge and action in public health.